South Africa

LIFE ESIDIMENI INQUEST

Portraits of Lives Lost: No-one was there, the gates were locked

Pauline Tholoane and her late brother-in-law Isaac Tholoane. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Pauline doesn’t remember where or when this photograph of Isaac was taken. But she remembers Isaac well. “He was my husband’s younger brother. He was a respectful and quiet person. He liked to draw houses. I think he wanted to be an architect,” she recalls.

Maverick Citizen is running a series of weekly portraits of those who died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy and the stories of the loved ones left behind. Harriet Perlman, Darnell Nxumalo and photographer Mark Lewis have been interviewing families as part of an ongoing memorial and advocacy website.

The inquest into the Life Esidimeni tragedy will determine whether there can be any criminal liability for the deaths of 144 mental healthcare patients who died in the care of the South African public health system. The inquest, held via Zoom, is often mired in legal debate and technical mishaps. It can be easy to forget that people are at the heart of this horrific human tragedy. Their lives and stories matter. 

Pauline doesn’t remember where or when this photograph of Isaac was taken. But she remembers Isaac well. “He was my husband’s younger brother. He was a respectful and quiet person. He liked to draw houses. I think he wanted to be an architect,” she recalls.

Isaac Tholoane worked as a builder for someone in Bez Valley. While at work he fell and suffered a very bad head injury. “He was never okay after that,” Pauline recalls.

Isaac was eventually admitted to Life Esidimeni in Waverley, where he lived for a year. Pauline’s son Tefo remembers the visits to see his uncle. “He always asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. We liked to chat about life,” he says.

Pauline clearly recalls the day they went to visit Isaac at Waverley, only to find he wasn’t there. “No one was there,” she says. “The gate was locked and they couldn’t tell us where he had been moved to. I was so scared.”

After nine months of looking for him, the family was finally told that Isaac was dead. “They took so long to tell us he was dead. And they didn’t even put him in a fridge at the mortuary. When we found the body it was badly decomposed,” says Pauline.

Pauline used to work at a dry cleaning business and now lives off her small pension. Her husband has also passed away. She says she is tired and would like to try to forget what happened to Isaac. It was just too painful. But Tefo doesn’t agree. “The people responsible for this got away with it. It’s not enough. It’s not right. They must go to jail,” he says. DM/MC

This series of weekly portraits of those who died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy and the stories of the loved ones left behind, are also available on the website www.lifeesidimeni.org.za 

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